Feds target texting drivers

Distracted drivers are on a trajectory to top drunk drivers in the major U.S. Stupid Road Hazard category, and may turn out to be even harder to combat. But efforts, at least, are being made.

The Department of Transportation on Thursday stepped up its campaign against distracted driving, announcing its first pilot program to study whether increased law enforcement would reduce distracted driving in two East Coast cities.

“Law enforcement will be out on the roads in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., with one simple message,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “If a driver is caught with a cellphone in one hand, they’ll end up with a ticket in the other.”

The $600,000 program, modeled on previous safe-driving programs to curb drunk driving and improve seat belt usage, also involves a paid advertising campaign aimed at men and women up to age 49.

The campaign using radio, TV and print ads began April 1 and will continue until April 16 in the Hartford and Syracuse metropolitan areas.

The first wave of high-visibility enforcement began Thursday and will last nine days in Syracuse; in Hartford it will begin Saturday and run through April 16. Subsequent enforcement waves in both cities will take place throughout the year.

As a California driver, and frequent pedestrian, I can certify that vast numbers of drivers are still more concerned with talking or texting than with the threat of a ticket; whether or not enforcement and large fines can wrench folks away from the addiction to constant communication remains to be seen.

Connecticut and New York are among only eight U.S. states and territories, including California, to ban the use of all hand-held devices, including cellphones, while driving.

Twenty states and territories, including California, as well as Washington, D.C., have a ban on texting while driving, while six states have laws that prohibit local jurisdictions from enacting restrictions, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The federal government also introduced new regulations in January that would subject truck and bus drivers who text while driving commercial vehicles to civil or criminal penalties of up to $2,750.

The Transportation Department said results from the pilot study would serve as a model nationwide for employing high-visibility enforcement, education and outreach to reduce distracted-driving behaviors.

In 2008, 5,870 people were killed and an estimated 515,000 people were injured in police-reported crashes in which at least one form of driver distraction was reported, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

On behalf of those half-million victims, and the many of us who fear becoming a similar statistic just because somebody can’t hang up and drive, this space hereby sides with the Department of Transportation on this one.

Law enforcement keeping an eye out for distracted drivers – chicagotribune.com.

Goodbye to all that — & hello 2010

It’s hard to mourn the passage of 2009. Jobless friends struggled to survive while our own family income took a dive. Gay friends watched meanness triumph over decency in equality battles. Friends of many stripes lamented choices made by the president we elected with unrealistically high hopes. And my hometown paper this morning lists, among the top stories of the year, teenage gang rape, government insolvency and a bunch of senseless killings.

Other front pages aren’t much different: my second-favorite city winds up the year in the red and worried about the shadow of 9/11 (New York Times.) Murder and assault — specifically assault compounded by injustice — are among today’s concerns in Chicago. And a couple of other former hometown papers lead off the year’s last day with stories of car crashes, shootouts (Atlanta Journal Constitution) and a tragic, child-abandoning, now dead, alcoholic mom (Richmond Times-Dispatch). Plus another doozy about four or five hundred dead animals found in one house — and that happened in Philadelphia.

Optimism, these days, is a full-time job.

But hey. We’re inching toward health reform. Umar’s bomb didn’t go off.  Some of those bad guys (above) went to jail, and a few good guys who’d been jailed as bad guys for a very long time got out of jail thanks to the Innocence Project.  And even if the best we can do for employment optimism is note that the rate of jobs lost is getting smaller — can the country’s jobless find hope in that? — the jobless recovery seems to be happening. Surely jobs will follow.

Plus: even if we don’t like all of his choices and decisions, we have an articulate president who comes across, still, as thoughtful and decent — and doesn’t make you cringe when you see him on TV. There’s hope.

And True/Slant, which you’d never heard of this time last year, is closing in on a million readers.

Happy New Year from the Boomers and Beyond page.

White House dinner crashers? '…certainly not us!'

I am still worried about the Salahis. A few days ago it was the issue of decorum, which they do not seem to have in abundance. Today, amid protests of good manners that would never have allowed them to intrude where the uninvited fear to tread, there is concern for their grammar and syntax. For a couple who are clearly headed towards a book deal, grammar may no longer matter but discombobulated syntax can cut into book-signing audiences.

As Kathleen Hennessey and Mark Silva report in today’s Chicago Tribune,

The couple who made it past Secret Service security to hobnob with the president at a state dinner last week say “the truth will come out” about their night at the White House and insist they’re not party crashers.

The couple said in an interview on NBC‘s “Today” that they were “shocked and devastated” by accusations that they showed up uninvited and talked their way past security. They said they were cooperating with a Secret Service investigation and claimed they had evidence showing they had permission to attend the A-list affair.

An e-mail exchange with Pentagon official Michele Jones will, insist the decorous couple — certainly people who invite the TV cameras in to watch their dressings-up can’t be utterly without taste — completely exonerate them.

The Salahis wrote that they drove to the White House the night of the dinner “to just check in, in case it got approved since we didn’t know, and our name was indeed on the list!” The Secret Service has said they were not on that list and that it erred by letting them in.

“We were invited, not crashers,” Michaele Salahi said in the “Today” interview. “There isn’t anyone who would have the audacity or the poor behavior to do that. No one would do that and certainly not us.”

So far be it from this space to insinuate that they are guilty of poor behavior. But there is still room for concern about their facility with the English language:

Tareq Salahi said he and his wife have been “very candid” with the Secret Service and “have turned over documentation to them. … We’re going to definitely work with the Secret Service between Michaele and I to really shed light on this.”

Couple say they didn’t crash White House dinner — chicagotribune.com.